Russian President Vladimir Putin signs the book at the mausoleum of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Monday. And while the two are often seen as having much in common -- perhaps the two world leaders making the most ambitious efforts to challenge the global dominance of the West -- Putin's Ankara visit illustrated how far apart the two countries still remain.
The visit was especially intriguing since Putin, in the wake of the crisis over Ukraine and the collapse in relations with Europe and the United States, is eagerly seeking non-Western allies. And Erdogan, too, has flirted with his own turns to the East.
In an interview with Turkish state news agency Anadolu ahead of his visit, Putin alluded to that coalition-of-the-unwilling affinity: "We highly value independent decisions by Turkey, including on economic cooperation with Russia," he said, in a clear reference to Western sanctions which Turkey has not joined. "Our Turkish partners refused to sacrifice their interests for somebody else's political ambitions. I consider that to be a really well-weighed and far‑sighted policy."
But unlike Putin's recent visit to China, where his hosts at least pretended to treat Putin like an ally, in Turkey his visit was greeted by protesters, and Erdogan publicly criticized Russia's position on Syria and on the Crimean Tatars.
A map of recent U.S. military activities around Russia's borders. (source: defense.gov)
An ongoing Russian military buildup in Crimea could help Moscow to control the entire Black Sea, the top United States military official in Europe has said.
General Philip Breedlove, Commander of U.S. European Command, visited Kiev this week, and when reporters asked him about Russian military activities, he said the Pentagon was "very concerned":
[W]e are very concerned with the militarization of Crimea. We are concerned in two respects. One, that the military forces in Crimea constitute an illegal annexation of that piece of Ukraine and that these forces are able to hold that land and, in an extreme sense, could possibly produce force from that land.
Secondarily, we are concerned that the capabilities in Crimea that are being installed will bring effect to almost the entire Black Sea. And this is of concern. Costal defense cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and other capabilities that are able to exert military influence over the Black Sea. And finally, as you know, in March of this year the Defense Ministry of Russia announced that it would move nuclear capabilities into Crimea, and we continue to be concerned about this and watch for indications of it.
While Russia is on a land-grabbing binge, South Ossetia hopes Moscow will not forget about its aspirations, too. The region’s separatist leadership is drawing up an agreement meant to insert the disputed territory into the Russian Federation.
The agreement is influenced by a recent integration plan that Moscow offered to South Ossetia’s separatist twin, Abkhazia, but reportedly goes far beyond it. Both regions maintain de-facto independence from Georgia and almost existentially rely on backing from Russia. Abkhazia, however, insists on some ground rules in its relationship with Moscow, such as keeping space for sovereignty.
The particulars of the changes made by the Abkhaz remain under wraps, but, reportedly, they took out the clause on bilateral simplification of naturalization of each other’s citizens. Also, reportedly, axed was the most contentious part that proposed to allow Russians to take the command of a joint military force in times of war in Abkhazia.
But if the Abkhaz found the Russian integration plan overbearing, the South Ossetians believe that such a deal would not be going far enough. “The version of the agreement, which is being prepared for signing between Russia and Abkhazia, would not reflect all the yearnings of the South Ossetian people, their aspirations for the Russian Federation,” said the region’s de-facto parliamentary speaker, Anatoly Bibilov.
An airline out of the rambunctious Russian republic of Chechnya was planning to launch flights from Crimea to Armenia next month, but Yerevan, ever image-conscious, now seems hesitant to be the only direct, regular international destination for trips from the Russian-annexed peninsula.
Armenia’s aviation regulators late last week refused to authorize flights run by Grozny Avia between the Crimean capital of Simferopol to Yerevan.
International airlines are avoiding Russian-occupied skies over Crimea. Russia’s Aeroflot operates direct flights to Crimea from Moscow, with most flights for this month largely sold out.
Armenia’s Civil Aviation Agency cited unspecified errors in Grozny Avia’s application as the reason for its refusal to allow the flights, RFE/RL reported. The refusal is not conclusive and Grozny Avia can technically reapply, but some believe that Armenia is trying to avoid further miffing Ukraine, already upset over Yerevan’s backing the right to self-determination of the Crimean people.
The former head of the Civil Aviation Agency, Shagen Petrosian, said that allowing such flights would also significantly damage Armenia’s reputation and could possibly lead to international sanctions, epress.am reported.
A brand new international travel option is underway for the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula. An airline based in Russia’s North-Caucasus republic of Chechnya plans to launch direct flights between the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and Crimea’s main city of Simferopol, according to RIA-Novosti.
Grozny Avia, named after Chechnya's capital, Grozny (Russian for fearsome), was ordered into being by the obstreperous province's warlord-turned-president, Ramzan Kadyrov. The air company now conducts domestic flights within the Russian Federation.
Its twice-weekly Yerevan-Simferopol flights are tentatively expected to start on October 28, but may get pushed over into November, the carrier told the agency Crimea Media.
Grozny Avia operated its first international flight out of Simferopol to Istanbul in July, when Crimea was already under Russian control. Regular flights were cancelled thereafter for "political reasons," the official story goes. Some news reports claimed that the cancellation was a result of Turkey siding with Ukraine and its Western partners in the dispute with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Earlier this year, the International Civil Aviation Organization called on international carriers to avoid the Crimean airspace, which Russia hijacked from Ukraine, along with the land below it. Currently, all regular international flights to Crimea are mainly by Russia’s Aeroflot.
Sign reading "Don't Say Everything You Know, But Know Everything You Say," at a submarine base in Balaclava, just outside Sevastopol. (photo: The Bug Pit)
The city government of Sevastopol has proposed that Russia make it a Soviet-style "closed" city, which foreigners and even Russians living even in other parts of the country would not be able to visit.
On July 22, members of the Sevastopol legislative assembly formally appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials asking them to impose "restrictions on the stay of people not permanently residing in and not registered in Sevastopol." The annexation of Crimea to Russia earlier this year was accompanied by a remarkable degree of Soviet nostalgia, but the return of closed cities takes that nostalgia to an unexpected extreme.
According to the website sevastopol.su (yes, ".su" as in "Soviet Union"): "The initiators of the appeal are motivated by the fact that Sevastopol is the main base of the Black Sea Fleet of Russia and a factor of stability in the entire region, and so requires a special regime of secrecy and ensuring its security. The deputies believe that the unstable circumstances in the world and the fundamentally aggressive attitude of the Western community towards Russia can attract a host of provocative acts in Crimea and Sevastopol."
When Russia annexed Crimea just over three months ago, lots of residents expected life under the Kremlin’s guidance to result in a boost in the quality of life. But the opposite is proving true. Spiraling inflation is fueling discontent on the peninsula.
Residents are experiencing constant price hikes for food and drugs. Vladimir Klychnikov, head of Crimea’s Federation of Trade Unions, summarized residents’ discontent during a recent meeting of the Crimean government, saying that prices for many staples have “doubled, whereas wages cannot keep up pace.”
Wage and pension increases are indeed lagging behind rising costs. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister for Social Issues Olga Golodets reported that since the annexation average public-sector wages in Crimea have been raised by about 22 percent to 11,820 rubles (about $337), and average pensions have increased by 50 percent to 7,958 rubles (about $227). Meanwhile, wages in the private sector have remained largely stagnant.
Crimea’s retailers cite disrupted supply networks from Ukraine as the main reason for price hikes. The Russian-Ukrainian crisis forced entrepreneurs to find new suppliers in Russia, where wholesale prices are much higher. Transport costs have also increased for retailers.
The tourism numbers for Crimea’s early May holiday season are looking grim and are shaping up as a major setback for the Kremlin.
Despite massive Kremlin subsidies and an advertising blitz to entice tourists, hotels, guest houses and sanatoria on the peninsula were less than one-third full in early May, compared with the same period in 2013.
“Only 28-30 percent of rooms [at hotels and sanatoria] are occupied, which is a drop of 2-2.5 times compared to last year,” Igor Kotlar, Deputy Minister of Resorts and Tourism of Crimea, said at a recent meeting of the peninsula’s Council of Ministers. “The number went up a little during the May holidays, but the increase was also smaller than last year.”
According to Rustem Abkadyrov, who owns a resort property in Crimea’s town of Sudak, up to 80 guests would normally stay at his property during May holidays, including tourists from Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and Poland. This year, there were only seven visitors, mostly from Russia.
“Seventy five percent of visitors were normally from Ukraine; this year, none of them has so far expressed a desire to come,” Vesti.ua quoted Abkadyrov as saying.
“Even the Russians who booked rooms could not get here: they were delayed at the Kerch crossing for 24 hours and cancelled,” he added, waving his hands in despair.
Kotlar’s boss, Crimea’s Minister of Resorts and Tourism Elena Yurchenko, hopes to save the 2014 tourist season by attracting tourists from Ukraine. She stated that Ukrainians traditionally accounted for about two-thirds of tourists vacationing in Crimea, and pledged that “we will attract Ukrainian tourists this year too, as long as [the authorities] do not put obstacles at the border.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree to return ethnic minorities deported from Crimea under Joseph Stalin has revived homecoming-hopes among the peninsula's ethnic Armenian community.
“We hope that, based on the decree and a subsequent federal program, we can bring back at least 20,000 Crimean Armenians,” Vagarshak Melkonian, the leader of the Crimean Armenian Society, told RIA Novosti.
Running his empire as a strategy game, Stalin used to copy and paste entire ethnic groups from one place to another for tactical considerations; a process that is believed to have left millions uprooted or dead. Melkonian estimates that anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 ethnic Armenians were forced out of Crimea in the 1940s, when their and other minorities’ loyalty to the Soviet state was questioned.
Yet, rather than correcting past injustices, Putin’s move on this matter is largely seen as an attempt to consolidate his de-facto control of Crimea against opposition from Ukraine and the West.
The April 21 measure is primarily meant to court the Tatar minority, which bore the brunt of the Soviet-era deportations and is now wary of Moscow's takeover of the region.
The Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemilev has blasted the decree as Putin’s attempt to “ingratiate” himself with the Tatar population.
But Putin said that other minorities, such as “Armenian population, Germans, Greeks,” would also be rehabilitated.
Few people might be tempted to move to Crimea now, with Ukraine and Russia on the brink of war, but Melkonian believes Armenians will return gradually.
Professional athletes try to stay away from politics as a general rule. But in Ukraine these days, it’s increasingly difficult to do so. Players in Ukraine’s Premier League, the country’s top football division, say they are having a tough time concentrating on the game.
Helping to sow confusing in the Premier League is the fact that a couple of top teams, including front-runner Shakhtar Donetsk, are based in eastern Ukraine, currently the epicenter of disturbances kicked up by pro-Russian agitators. In addition, two of the 15 teams now competing in the top division play their home games in Crimea, a peninsula that Russia recently claimed as its own.
Conditions are especially bewildering for foreign players, such as Miguel Veloso, a 27-year-old midfielder who plays for Ukraine’s most storied football team, FC Dynamo Kyiv. Veloso is also expected to be a major contributor on Portugal’s national team in the upcoming World Cup tournament, to be held this summer in Brazil.
“We are living amid a time of war and it’s not easy,” Veloso recently told EurasiaNet.org. “These aren’t the proper conditions to play football in now. It’s very hard when you see people in a war-like situation and you have to go out on the field for a match.”
There are no Russian citizens on Dynamo Kyiv’s roster, a factor that no doubt keeps the tension level in the clubhouse in check. Still the players must contend with major distractions; several have friends and family members living in areas directly affected by the Ukrainian-Russian crisis. “Some of my teammates are more involved in the situation,” said Veloso, who previously played for Genoa in Italy’s Serie A league. “Even those who are not directly involved, they still suffer a lot because they are Ukrainian and they can’t accept what’s happening to their country.”